James Bainbridge
United Kingdom UK
Feb 1, 2015 February 1, 2015

James is a travel writer and author of many Lonely Planet guides, including senior author of the guide to South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland.

Category: Travel Disaster Worth Sharing

Travelling to Timbuktu on fishing boats scuppered numerous travel plans, but ultimately gave an insight into African life.

A friend and I were travelling in Mali, and people kept telling us about the Niger steamboat, a colonial relic that plied the great river. It sounded like fun, but we could never find the grand bateau.

At the docks in Segou, Mopti, Niafunke and Timbuktu, people said the river was too low for the boat to sail. ‘It is also having mechanical problems, monsieur - you must take my brother’s boat instead…’ We ended up on a series of fishing pirogues (dug-out canoes), crawling along at the river’s pace, being force-fed fish and rice from a cauldron in the hull, and getting repeatedly dumped.

In village after village, the captain would announce that he didn’t have enough trade to continue, so he was leaving us with the chief’s son. While we waited for another pirogue to turn up, the chief’s son would ply us with Vimto and take us to meet his friends. In this manner, it took us two weeks to travel a couple of hundred kilometres.

We had to abandon our plans to explore the Sahara with a Tuareg guide, and to trek into Dogon Country, famous for its mask dances and mud-brick villages. But we eventually slowed to the African pace, adopted the fatalistic local attitude and accepted what the Niger had in store for us.

Then, one afternoon, we were drinking tea with the English teacher in a fishing village near Timbuktu, when a foghorn disrupted the Saharan silence. Asked what the noise was, the teacher’s eyes lit up. ‘It is the grand bateau…’